Speculative Fiction Genre Labels – What are They (and do they matter?)

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Deciding what genre you’re writing isn’t always an easy task. Of course, there are broad categories which have generally agreed-upon definitions – categories like horror, science-fiction and fantasy. But within each of these big umbrella genres there are an endless number of sub-genres and styles and movements, many of which have descriptions that seem to vary depending on who you ask.

Within horror alone, for example, we have cosmic horror, body horror, psychological horror, dark fantasy, ghost stories, splatterpunk, survival horror, gothic horror, zombie fiction, monster horror, horror comedy, occult detective fiction, Lovecraftian horror, weird fiction, paranormal horror, supernatural horror, erotic horror, surreal horror, and many more besides.

And the choices are no less numerous when it comes to speculative fiction. Here are just some of the speculative sub-genres and their definitions…

Hard science-fiction

Stories where real-world science is centre stage. Hard sci-fi stories typically explore the ideas surrounding a particular scientific idea or invention.

Soft science-fiction

In contrast to hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi is either focussed on the social sciences (anthropology instead of physics, for example), or is simply more concerned with telling a good story than with ensuring that everything is scientifically accurate.

Space opera

At the complete other end of the spectrum from hard sci-fi is space opera, which has very little to do with realism. Generally speaking, space operas include fantasy technology, improbable aliens, and epic plots. Think Star Wars, and you’ll be in the right general area.

Scene from Forbidden Planet: a robot transporter zips across the screen, carrying three soldiers

Slipstream

Slipstream is a term that’s generally used to refer to fiction that crosses the boundary between genres. A slipstream story might have elements of several genres – the focus on character and mood of a literary story combined with a space opera setting, for example.

Post-apocalyptic

These are stories which revolve around survival in a world that has endured (or is currently enduring) some kind of all-consuming disaster. 

Dystopian

Dystopian stories are distinct from post-apocalyptic ones. Usually, in a dystopian story, the world hasn’t ended, but may have changed into (or always have been) a warped and unsettling version of the real world.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in Teh Handmaid's Tale closes her eyes

Alternate history

Alternate history stories are exactly what they sound like. Rather than taking place in a totally fictional world, these stories go back in time and change something specific about real-world history, then explore the results.

Cyberpunk

One way of characterising cyberpunk is with the phrase “low life and high tech”. Cyberpunk stories often take place in gritty urban landscapes, usually dystopian, and feature crime, espionage, body-hacking and advanced technology.

[Other]-punk

Cyberpunk has inspired a raft of other movements with specific focusses. Solarpunk, for example, concentrates on worlds which make significant use of solar technology, while biopunk is all about biotech, and nanopunk explores the potential of nanorobots. 

A steampunk helicopter shaped like a human head gif

And many more…

These are just the definitions that fit comfortably under sci-fi. Often stories cross into fantasy and horror too, where you’ll find dozens of other genre sub-categories: everything from high to low fantasy, and superhero stories to fairytales.

But… does genre matter?

As you can see from the above descriptions, genre labels are numerous, uncertain, and often overlap or conflict with one another. The whole question of genre certainly isn’t very clear-cut!

So why bother working out what genre your story is? 

Well, there are arguments both for and against making use of genre classifications. Here are some of them…

Hooray for genre classification!

First and foremost, knowing what genre (or genres) you tend to write might help you develop your writing. Knowing that your stories can be classified as slipstream can help you find more inspiring books to read, build an awareness of what others have done with slipstream ideas, and get to know the conventions which underpin many slipstream stories (conventions which you can then follow or break as suits your work).

Gif of Leonard Nimoy as Spock saying "precisely"

Secondly, genre is a useful signpost to readers. People who love reading solarpunk will seek it out. Being able to confidently tell people that you write solarpunk can help readers find you, and your stories find readers. Plus, when a reader does pick up your work, a genre classification lets them know (at least in general terms) what kind of experience to expect. 

Finally, genre descriptions are convenient for agents and publishers. It’s difficult to sell a creative work if you can’t describe it, and genre labels provide an easy way of describing your work that sets it neatly in context with other works of literature. Plus, if you know your genre, it’s a lot easier to track down agents and publishers who will be interested in what you write. 

Who cares about genre anyway?

Given how imperfect genre classifications can be, it can sometimes be counter-productive to try and fit your story into a given genre. If you’ve written something that isn’t quite space opera and isn’t quite slipstream, labelling it as either might be of little help to you or your readers. 

Gif of Katy Perry saying "I'm not one thing and I don't like to be put in a box."

Not only that, but there are times when an awareness of genre norms can be constricting rather than inspiring. You might find that you write better, more original, more interesting, and more unrestrained fiction when you don’t spend much time thinking about how it fits in with other work in the canon!

Find your own genre (or go your own way)

Whether thinking in terms of genre is useful is mostly dependent on you, and the way you write. Maybe being aware of genre conventions helps you create the stories you want to create. Maybe knowing what genres your story touches on helps you find a great place to publish your work.

Or maybe you just find genre limiting and difficult. Maybe it’s something you’re better off not being confined by.

Where do you fall on this scale? Do you care about genre? Do you find it useful? And, if you do, what genres do you write in, and what genres do you most like to read?

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Krishan Coupland

Krishan Coupland

A happy woman sitting on a green sofa with a laptop. Lovely kitchen in the background. I'd be happy too tbh

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